Speculations on the history of the text of the Daodejing

My 6 Early Dao groups (Yang Dao, Body and Self, Mother Dao, Dao of Power, Jixia Wisdoms, and Against Confucius) are arranged in one possible historical sequence based on my understanding of the history of Warring States China and Warring States Philosophy. However, the destruction of records during the late Warring States era and the Qin dynasty (approximately the 3rd c. BC, the period when the DDJ was put into its final form) was so total that it is hard to say much about that era with any confidence, especially because most of the Warring States documents we have were reedited at a considerably later date.

In the case of the DDJ we are better off than with most texts, since the Mawangdui A (MWD A) text tells us that a version of the 5,000 word DDJ existed by 190 BC and probably several decades before that (though not necessarily in its present sequence), and since the Guodian (GD) text tells us that at least a third of the DDJ had already been written by 300 BC, though had almost certainly the 5000 word DDJ not yet been compiled (and much of it was not yet written.

That isn’t much, and the standard Chinese authority on the question, Sima Qian’s chapter on the supposed author of the Daodejing, Laozi, is no help at all since it was written more than a century after the fact and suggests that Laozi, might be identified with any of three different individuals who lived during the period of something like 2 centuries.

My own hypothesis is that the Daodejing came into being between about 350 BC and 250 BC. Early Dao was produced starting at the beginning of this period by members of several independent groups which were not necessarily aware of one another’s existence. These Early Dao writings were gathered into the complete version of the Daodejing toward the end of that period by the Sage Dao editors/authors as the part of their ancient heritage that they wished to preserve and transmit.

The traditional sequence of the Daodejing offers numerous clues as to the historical development of the Daodejing and the interrelationships of its various subgroups, but on the whole it is entirely confusing. The chapter divisions are often arbitrary, and many chapters are composites made up of passages which are only very distantly related. Passages or whole chapters from a later tendency are often inserted into intelligible sequences of earlier passages. We always must remember that the Daodejing came into being by accretion over a considerable period of time, and the traditional text is not just an edited text and the product of many authors, but also the product of a series of editors. who variously added earlier material which they regarded as part of their tradition, added new chapters of their own, or revised and amended the text they had inherited. The divergences between the MWD A, MWD B, and BD texts tell us that editing continued in the 2nd century BC, even after the final 81-chapter text had been decided upon, and the WB text centuries later differs significantly from all know earlier texts (for example in the almost total absence of the final particle 也). To me this indicates that students of the Daodejing did not have the reverence for the transmitted text characteristic of Confucians, and this is certainly quite consistent with the Daodejing’s suspicion of words and speech.

The most useful clue to be found by comparing the traditional Daodejing to earlier texts. as Franklin Perkins has shown, is the absence of chapters 67-81 at the end of the Daodejing from the GD text. When these chapters are read as a group, the can be seen to be fairly consistent in form, style and topic, with a the great majority of the chapters dealing with strategies of public life, a heavy concentration of a few terms such as 天道 / 天之道, and the absence of many of the themes and styles of the earlier chapters. I think that it is reasonable to conclude that these chapters are intended as the conclusion of the Daodejing and were added last by an author / editor with a particular point of view.

Following this line of thinking, the author / editor of chapters 67-81 would be one of the members of the Sage Dao tradition, which I have defined mostly by the presence of the Sage and which can be seen to differ from the Early Dao chapters in their style, form, and themes. Once the coherent 67-81 section has been defined, it can be seen that most chapters in chapters 57-66 are also Sage Dao chapters (the exceptions being chapter 61 and the rather problematic chapter 69). Most of the remaining chapters in part I (chapters 38-56) are Early Dao chaptersfalling into one of two intelligible but not completely consecutive Ealy Dao groups: Jixia chapters 39-46 and 48, and 50-52, 54-56 and 59 (counting the problematic chapters 54 and 59 as Early Dao). Ths leaves chapters 47, 49, and 53 to be accounted for, and I suspect that these chapters were just Sage Dao insertions for the purpose of making the early Dao / Sage Dao divide less evident,something which is very often seen in Part I.


Of the 7 groups I have found in Early Dao, the first “Yangist” group expresses ideas from Yang Zhu, a shadowy figure of about 350 BC. who renounced the proud, martial life of the Chinese aristocracy of his time in order to keep his body whole and cultivate the forces of life, making possible the private world in which later Daoism flourished. All chapters in the Yangist group are practical or moral, with little poetry, mysticism or philosophical subtlety, and the textually difficult chapters 13, 30, and 31, in particular, might conceivably be the words of Yang Zhu himself (if he ever existed). Several of these chapters include added explanatory material and few of them read smoothly. The ending of chapter 13 might be intended to soften the message of the body of the chapter and bring it in line with the later Daodejing.

The Yangist break with the Chinese aristocratic tradition tended to be negative, merely rejecting ambition and war, but the second “Vitalist” group, is a positive development of the private life made possible by that break. Whereas the Yangist chapters merely said that life is better than death and that we should regard our life and our body as more valuable than fame, riches, or high position, the Vitalist chapters approach the mystical in their meditations on birth, death and the forces of life, pointing toward toward the long, rich Chinese tradition of self-cultivation and care of the body.

The third “Maternalist” group, includes most of the mystical poetry in the Daodejing and most of the references to the mother and the female. I see it as relatively early and perhaps affiliated to some degree with the two previous groups, but possibly of entirely different and perhaps partly non-Chinese origin. .

The fourth “Power of Dao” group is closely clustered with only one extraneous chapter, and more than most of the other Early Dao chapters it represents Dao as a powerful, quasi-magical being. Of these chapters chapter 37, at least, clearly speaks of the political functions of Dao, though this may be the result of editorial tampering — this chapter shares much in common with chapter 32 and may have replaced it as the final chapter of Part I, and I doubt that it is accidental that these chapters conclude Part I. (I first thought these chapters were the newest chapters of Early Dao, but because of their relative roughness I now think that they belong with the first four groups, and that an editor placed them at the conclusion of Part I for emphasis.

“Jixia” group marks a new direction, and I believe that it is later than the previous four groups. These chapters tend toward metaphysics, logic, and philosophy of language and address questions characteristic of the thinkers of the Jixia school in the state of Qi (approximately 357 BC – 265 BC), which was the first Chinese venue in which free argumentation was developed, as opposed to the elucidation of the words of a revered teacher. The chapters of this group are closely clustered and may have entered the Daodejing together, and since a Jixia chapter (chapter 01) begins Part I of the traditional DDJ, and since most of the other Jixia chapters are grouped at the beginning of Part II, I think that one of the early editors of the DDJ might have been affiliated with this Jixia tendency.

The sixth “Anti-Confucian” group perhaps might have been included in the Jixia group. However, because of their polemical anti-Confucianism, which is seldom seen elsewhere in Early Dao, I have made it an independent group. Three of its four chapters (chapters 17-18-19) are consecutive, and the anti-Confucian chapter 38 begins Part II of the traditional DDJ.

The “Doubtful Passages” group oin Appendix I mostly consists of tags which were made to about a dozen chapters, all but one of them belonging to Early Dao. I think that these passages are not merely add-ons, but inferior in quality, almost unintelligible, and unworthy of the Daodejing. Others may disagree.

The time when a passage was written might have been much earlier than the time when it was brought into the Daodejing, and while I’m confident of my Early Dao / Sage Dao distinction, it’s is also possible that some members of the Early Dao tradition was still active at the time when the Sage Dao editors were compiling the Daodejing. My general belief is that the Yang Dao, Body and Self , Mother Dao, and Power of Dao groups are the earliest, in about that order and were produced around 350 BC or somewhat thereafte, with the Jixia, and Anti-Confucian groups coming somewhat later and the Sage Dao chapters coming last of all, starting on about 310 – 290 BC and ending about 270 – 250 BC, with the complete Daodejing produced around 25 0 B.C. But that is all rather conjectural.


This is not a “critical text” in way that term is usually understood. My rearrangement of the text of the Daodejing is not an attempt to reconstruct some earlier text of the Daodejing and I cannot claim that it is rigorous or definitive. At the same time, I believe that my most important point, the Early Dao / Sage Dao distinction, is well argued and must be taken seriously. My method has been eclectic, and my ultimate goal has been to produce a “readerly” text which will help the reader to more easily see the topical groups within the DDJ and the way they relate to one another. By dividing and regrouping the DDJ I believe that I have made it more possible to see the kind of unity that it does have. The traditional text makes it too easy to see the Daodejing as a random assemblage of miscellaneous sayings, as D. C. Lau did.

My eclectic method has meant that there are a certain number of passages which could be placed in more than one place, depending on whether my final decision is based on topic, key words, or form and style, and in some cases I have noted this. I believe many and perhaps most of the chapters of the DDJ are editorial composites, often including materials from different periods, but I have only divided chapters which didn’t seem to me to work as chapters, and others might easily disagree with my judgments in these cases. I have worked within the context of my own understanding of the history of Warring States China and the philosophy that , but our knowledge of this era is often uncertain and lacking in detail. And while everything I have done has been governed by my interpretation of the Daodejing , this interpretation is partly the outcome of the textual work I have done.